Happiness comes from finding the good in life. If this is so, how can it be done? What if things aren’t so good right now? Does that mean I must resign myself to unhappiness? How do I know what is good? Does this mean that I always have to be trying to “do good”? Does it meant that I can’t seek pleasure, and that I have to sacrifice myself for others? Not in the least.
Here are three basic ways to cultivate the good in life.
1. Find what is good in the present moment. Happy people know that happiness is not necessarily an easy thing to cultivate. It is difficult to be happy when we are starving, in great pain, without a job, or are suffering the effects of events beyond our control. However, happy people know that happiness is not something that simply comes to you. Happiness is not simply a matter of life circumstances. Instead, it is something that must be cultivated.
Every situation involves both good and bad. I may eat the chocolate ice cream, but I may gain weight. Or, conversely, I may forgo the 300 calories, but then, I don’t get to experience the rich flavors of Ben and Jerry’s. If I get married, I gain love; however, I may lose my freedom. If I get my dream job, I lose the opportunity to pursue another avocation.
The trick to happiness is to look for the good in every moment – every moment – right now. And now. And now. This is not to say that we should “live for the moment”. Living for the moment is rash and imprudent. If I spend all my money on this moment, I’ll have none for the next one. Instead, it means that we should live the moment. Living the moment means extracting every bit of goodness that we can out of the moment – regardless of what it is.
This is not to deny pain and suffering. There will be pain, suffering and misfortune. But there can also be goodness, perhaps even through the pain. The idea of experiencing goodness even in the throes of pain (and even death) is something that is explored in many popular movies. For example, in The World According to Garp, the Robin Williams character is able to experience the joy of flying in a helicopter as he is carried off to a hospital after suffering a soon-to-be fatal gunshot wound. Similar themes are explored in movies like American Beauty andWild.
2. Ask yourself, what makes something good. Then pursue the good in life. This is, perhaps, the most important step. You do not need a course in ethics to address this question. You don’t need to be a moral philosopher. You don’t even have to check with Emily Post. It is important simply to ask the question. You don’t have to worry about getting the answer precisely right. Simply asking the question will move you in a positive direction. By asking the question, you cannot help but to think about why you do the things you do; to articulate your values; to confront conflicts in your life; to make your life better.
Here are some good things, and some reasons why they are good.
Breathing is good. It is the most basic mode of life. I always have my breathing to return to when things are bad. Breathing feels good and makes me feel alive.
Being the best damned bagger at the grocery market is good.
Mozart is good. But so are Clapton, Coltrane and George M. Cohan. No explanation is needed.
Hard work and perseverance are good. It is the primary vehicle for producing good outcomes.
Aged cheese is good. Yes, it is true that cheese often has some rather malodorous qualities. But once we get through those odd flavors, we are able to experience the richness of flavor that cheese affords.
Gardening is good. Gardening allows me to create something where here once was nothing. It gives me a sense of being able to create and control my world. It produces both bounty and beauty.
Fixing cars for a living is good. When I fix your car I give you something for you that makes your life better.
Being the best auto mechanic I can be is good. When I give you my best work, I show you what type of person I am. I both cultivate and show my integrity.
Intimacy is good. When we are intimate with others, we can share our vulnerabilities and strengths. We are connect to someone and become part of something larger than ourselves.
Compassion is good. When we care for others, we feel most alive. We know we have made a difference in the emotional lives others.
3. Cultivate the Good, But Appreciate the Moment. This step comes from putting together the first two. To cultivate the good, we must reflect and identify what is of value in our lives. We then must put forth effort over time in order to cultivate the good in our lives. When we do so, of course, we are working to build a future that is good. But we cannot live for the future any more than we can live for the moment? Therefore, to experience happiness, we must continue to work toward the good (in the future) while simultaneously appreciating the good of the present moment. One without the other will not ensure a happy life.
Are you working toward your degree? Do you think you will feel happy once you graduate? Perhaps. But that feeling will not last. And so, if you delay your happiness until the future, it will never come. Work for the degree. Anticipate the pride and joy that will come from attaining your degree. But live each present moment en route to that degree (and beyond). What is good in this moment – in the act of progressing toward (or even away) from my degree, my goals.
There is good in this moment. Can you find it?